Monday, December 29, 2008

Notice: Winter Hiatus

This blog will be on temporary hiatus through Jan 7, 2009. I have nine days to write a book, people. See you next year!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Qur'an: Palm Fibre

Replying to an uncle who opposed and insulted the Prophet:

May his hands be ruined! Neither wealth or gains will help him, he will burn in the Flaming Fire, and so will his wife, with a rope around her neck.

Not too different from an imprecatory Psalm!

Qur'an: Purity

A sura of sincerity: He is God the one, eternal. He neither begat nor was begotten. No one is comparable to Him.

These all begin, I should say, with the phrase "In the name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of mercy." They also begin with the instruction "Say..." Presumably, instruction to the Prophet.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Editorial: Christ Comes Thrice

Christ comes thrice. This is, of course, my way of announcing on the church sign that we'll have three Christmas services. It also, not coincidentally, refers to Jesus's three advents: he came to Nazareth as an infant, he came back from the dead in resurrected form, and he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead at the end of the days.

Christ comes thrice. To a Jewish author who wrote that there is something in the definition of Messiah that Messiah never comes, I can assert with some safety that Messiah is always coming. Jesus is always on the way.

There is, I'm told, a new trend of installing GPS locating units inside the baby Jesus in public manger scenes, to expedite the return of those Christ infants who will, inevitably, once again be stolen. On the one hand, I'm of course dissappointed when people take anything that doesn't belong to them. This is why we can't have nice things, and so on.

On the other hand, Jesus always was a slippery jit. He's in Nazareth, now he's in Egypt. Wait a sec, now he's in Caana and Galilee! Watch out over there in the desert, too. Now he's on his way to Jerusalem! Now he's by the Jordan! Now he's on the Dead Sea! And did you see him escape those Pharisees? They had him on the edge of a cliff!

Not only that, accoring to the Mormons he made appearances in America. And did those feet in ancient time? People have traced his missing years to Egypt, to Greece, and to ancient India, as well as to the much more plebian Essian sect in the desert at Qumran and the equally arid wilderness of Saint John the Baptist.

So I can understand the impulse to move the kid around a bit. This was the man, after all, who clearly refused to set up shop, despite the rabbinic practices of the day. And the son of man has no place to lay his head. So this makes the GPS tactic a little theologically misguided. If posession is, as they say, nine tenths of law, God is pretty clear that no one gets to keep Jesus. He's pure subject, no one's object but his own.

Indeed, religious thinkers have noted that the most significant move of the Old Testament is to have a God who goes with you and before you. This deity transcends your valley. God is everywhere, and, because of the prohibition of idolatry, no one place specifically.

Yet the second greatest shift of religious thought is to have YHWH active in history. This had not been the case; while the village chieftan could have told you where El was, they couldn't have told you when he was doing anything, except that it happened in the spirit world, which was more or less timeless except for crop cycles.

So God, on the whole, behaves something like an elementary particle. You can say where Jesus is or you can say when Jesus is, but you can't do both. It's like the end of my unwritten trilogy, where one character transcends time but becomes fixed in space, and the other character, named the Faith, becomes fixed in time but transcends the spacial distinctions of the universe.

"So he's here?" someone asks. "Because he's everywhere?"

"But the question you have to ask yourself," a wiser soul replies, "is when ?"

Christ is always coming. Jesus is always on the way. Christ comes thrice, plus this is my body, plus where two or more are gathered in my name, plus it is not me but Christ in me, never mind the traditional dogma of omnipresence. I think we might just overwhelm the satellites. I understand they still have difficulty tracking. Space and time are difficult together.

Electronics might tell you your position on a map, but they do have difficulty talking about a journey.

So, yes, this Christ comes thrice is also, if anyone should ask it, a horrible pun. I would think myself remiss, after all, if no one found a church sign remarkable. Besides, we follow a pilgrim God. With Advent we celebrate the beginning of God's humble, winding and impoverished journey to a holy place. That the holy place happens to be not heaven or a temple but a cross and pauper's tomb is, I gather, something of the point.

So we begin to tell again the greatest story ever told. We are careful to introduce Mary and Joseph, we build character through childhood and baptism, we create tension with the Pharisees, we climax with Holy Week, and we denoumont with commissions and ascensions.

I would do all my literature teachers a great injustice if I did not also know that this happens to roughly parallel the stages of the human sexual experience. My question for the world is why we choose this word, why out of all the world's possibilities do we tell our lovers that we are on the way, coming? When we are already very much physically there?

Are we sexual pilgrims? Is the question not are we meant for each other, but are we meant for each other in a week long drive to Mexico?

Therefore a man shall leave his mother and father and cleave.... He is coming. There is a trodden path. Christ is a bridegroom. The structure of the short story is roughly the same as the structure of the pilgrimage. These are sexy parables. Advent is a faintly erotic time of year; everyone is blushing. There are supernaturally fertile virgins. All the pleasant surprises are inevitable. Cresting a hill, you see a holy city, fertile and fecund in its valley below. Grapes burst at your touch.

Christ comes thrice. Messiah is always coming. The question you have to ask yourself is when?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Love Poem: The Sun and the Shadow

The Sun and the Shadow

Once upon a time
the Beloved came and said:

I posess your love
both day and night-
but you'll never
be my companion
as long as you remain yourself.

I am the Sun
but you are just a shadow,
walking upon the earth.

Step out of hiding
and walk into my light-
once you've been erased,
then you will be
my closest friend.


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Love Poem: A Thousand Eyes

A Thousand Eyes

In love,
your lips should be silent.

Inside the heart,
you cook, boil, and burn.

No longer should you have
a single eye-
but you
a thousand eyes.

No longer should you have
a single ear-
but you
a thousand ears.

-Mushtaq Isfahani

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Qur'an: Daybreak

Another invocation against evil: seek refuge with the Lord of daybreak against the harm in creation, harm in the night, harm in witches who blow on knots*, and the harm in envy.

(*to cast spells)

Qur'an: People

Seek refuge with the Lord of people, the Controller of people, against the harm of the slinking whisperer, who whispers into the hearts of people. The whisperer can be jinn or people.

Well, that was short.

(More seriously, it resonates with Biblical language of Satan as deceiver, and says that harm can be human or, supposedly, demonic (if that's what jinns are).)

Notice: Bass Ackwards

I'll be reading and blogging the Qur'an backwards. See, there's no organization to the suras beyond the length they were originally preserved in- in this case, longest to shortest.

Now, if you had to choose between summarizing Psalms and summarizing Jude, and chronology didn't matter, which one would you start with?

Friday, December 5, 2008

Love Poem: The Same Language

The Same Language

To speak the same language
is kinship and affinity,
yet a person stuck with those
he can't confide in
is trapped like a prisoner
enchained by a lack of understanding.

It is indeed ironic:
There are many people
from India and Turkey
who speak the same language,
while there are countless Turks
who really can't understand one another.

The universal language is authentic insight.

To be one in heart is surely superior
to only speaking the same words.


Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Love Poem: Invisible Caravans

Invisible Caravans

Love's concert is calling,
but the flute can't be seen.

The drunks are in sight,
but the wine can't be seen.

of caravans
have passed
this very way -

Don't be surprised
if their trace can't be seen.

Muhammed Shirin Maghribi

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Editorial: Why the Qur'an

It is a fair question, I think, as to why I should choose, at this point in time, to study the Qur'an, the holy text of Islamic faith. And the answer is easy: I intend to convert.

Or, alternatively, I believe that Christians, Muslims, and Jews have more potentially in common than any one of them should share with secular global capitalism. We are all theists. We believe there is more to the cosmos than its visible material. We all believe that humanity does not stop at the border, and we all see the devastating effects of war and famine and plague. And we are all in the world-healing business. The same can not be said of Wal-Mart or Haliburton.

Which is not to say that we are all the same; it is to say that I can envision an odd coalition in the next century. Call us the Servants. Call us the Brotherhood of Widows. We are dissatisfied. We are anxious about the present but filled with the promise of the future. We have seen enough justice to believe that it is possible, and enough oppression to see that inhumanity cannot possibly be tolerated.

And we've come to challenge your conscience. Read these books. Transform your mind. Your choices are, as always, entirely up to you.

Who is else is going to wake you up? The same corrupt and equivocating UN that took a pass on Rwanda and Darfur? The fractured and militaristic legacy of American interventionism? The same corporate citizens who believe that a bad job is good enough for everyone? Who have a monetary incentive to increase, rather than address, your distress?

No, I do not intend to convert, anymore than I intend to condemn. Like any religous scholar, I intend to neither promote or disparage any one religion. But perhaps like very few scholars, I believe that we might promote religion as a whole. I'm simply fascinated by the force of faith in people's lives, and I feel it still has, often despite its history, more to offer the world than the absence of belief.

And I remain compelled by something that every religious tradition has in common: a strand of mysticism, thus my sojourn into Sufi poetry. I am perhaps irrationally fond of this eccentric and ephemeral point of contact between the world's great religous traditions.

So I do intend to learn. This blog has always been more than a little Christocentric. And hardly anyone I know has actually read the book at the center of so much contemporary controversy.

Thus, the opportunity is almost entirely too good, too fitting: as the interfaith work I do through Gethsemane develops into something that could take me to Spain or Israel, my own ignorance is brought entirely to light.

This is not punishment, but opportunity: as this blog swerves toward Religion 2.0, the religious ferment of my generation, and as my own religious studies move toward something as focused as a dissertation, I intend to learn and listen and understand in the broadest context I can comprehend.

I mean, do you ever wander what's beyond the forest that the trees sometimes hide?

Monday, December 1, 2008

Editorial: On Healing

I am prone to depression. When I say this, I do not mean that I am depressed now- I'm not. And it's not even likely that I'll be depressed tomorrow- as a matter of fact, I feel pretty good. I only mean that, having a history of depression in my adolescence and early adulthood, it's fairly likely that I'll know diagnosable depression again sometime before I die.

Part of this propensity is, I believe, personality. I brood. I consider myself a secret. I feel loss deeply. I carry old wounds around longer than many other people seem to. I connect smaller points of pain into larger self-punishing portraits. My gifts of self-knowledge, emotional awareness, deep memory, and perpetual pattern-seeking have also cursed the train of my existence to careen off of its very tracks- and to keep on going.

The other part of my proclivity, is, of course, chemical and biological. Early on I recognized that long nights threw my soul into darkness, and that brighter days abruptly reversed the trend (I later learned this to be a symptom of Seasonal Affective Disorder). I strongly suspect on evidence that both my mother and my father have wrangled with the their own versions of melancholia, though of course they have always refused to talk about it.

I write all of this because depression is the strongest ailment I have known. Physically, I've never so much as broken a bone. I've never had a major operation. I've had no significant infections or viruses- nothing at all, in that line, lasting more than a day or two. So I've lived my life externally unscathed.

Most people who know me have never, and would never, guess my annual malady. Which is a shame, because my remedies have been equally silent and internal, yet far more profound, their implications far more reaching.

In my earliest adolescence, the reversals of spring seemed - and doubtless were- essentially miraculous. I trace my commitment to follow Christ back to a bathroom epiphany in March the year I was in the seventh grade. The enduring bliss of my confirmation and Baptism one year later centered on the empty tomb of Easter- and, subliminally, on the change to Daylight Savings Time. My internal year begins on my birthday not because it is the day that I was born, but because in the middle of March's shifting weather I have been perennially reborn, reanimated.

Spring shoots its grass into my soul.

So you see, I do not understand the ascent from ahedonia to be one example of healing. I understand all healing to be extensions of what happened to me after those crashing, crushing waves of despair. Many have tried, though few have succeeded, to capture the numinous quality of the energy one receives post-trauma. Jane Kenyon has said that it is like falling into life again. I have said that happiness must have been surprised to find me there.

Have you ever smelt joy? It's something like detergent. Have you physically heard the electric crackle of the world, the snap and hum of emotional intent? Have you ever watched your golden breath pour out like sunlit water? Like amber wine?

Have you ever taken it back in?

Do you know what happens to the fine hairs on your friends arm when she reaches for a pencil? Do you know what color looks like what it comes back? Do you know what music sounds like when you've heard months of mumbling murmur?

I will never forget these things, though they fade as each year without an episode happens- seven now, in my provisionally stable sanity, my fortified emotional green zone. Mortars here, tanks over there. Keep the guards awake.

But the odd, the strange thing about such cyclic peaks and troughs was not that wellness meant getting back to normal. It is that normal meant getting back to illness, to the worse way things were before. By November, no one's paying attention, but it's coming just the same.

The best times, the breath of life times, were just this side of tragedy. Healing feels better than feeling well. Heaven is not your living room, but the place where you wake up after surgery. This may have interesting theological implications.

What if we went to church not for maintenance, but for recovery from the deep wounds of the world fully and clearly recognized? What if Christ gave no awards for perfect attendance, but did give budget-bursting parties for 12-step alcoholics? What if God was not the guy who cleaned your gutters, but the handyman who replaced the busted pipes inside your basement?

Talitha cumi. This is my body, broken for you. The Eastern church understands sin not as a legal offense but as a spiritual illness. Christ came not to die for our sins, but to live for our salvation, "God became human so that humanity can become divine." The Crucifixion was not about an innocent taking the fall for Adam's infraction, but about a healing benediction of a cosmos rent asunder from God. About putting the splint on a relational split, not leveling the scales for some blind biddy.

A preacher I knew once shattered a number of coffee mugs, "This is what happens to our lives," he said, and put them inside a bag. Then, while he was teaching, he took the scattered shards and set them on a piece of wood. He had arranged them into a mosaic. "And this is God's response," he said, "if we let Him."

We're going to begin offering a healing station at Gethsemane in a few weeks, and it's going to be a temptation for me to go back week after week. We're always wounded. Indeed, some have said that the art of wholeness is learning to understand and accept our infirmities. But if that is true, then the art of living in Christ is learning to understand and accept the healing principles at work inside our lives.

The Bible, I'm increasingly beginning to see, divides the world into two kingdoms: the kingdom of the world with all of its powers and principalities and the kingdom of Christ, that is the kingdom of heaven or the spirit. One of these kingdoms offers healing. The other one does not. Perhaps the art of living is simply deciding whose side you're on.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

What are Ember Days?

The Ember Days are four sets of three days (roughly equidistant in the year) set aside for fasting by the Western Christian calendar. They were originally also the only days in which clergy could be ordained. They are the in weeks between the third and fourth Sundays of Advent, the first and second Sundays of Lent, the week between Pentecost and Trinity Sunday, and the week after Holy Cross Day. They are on the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday of their respective weeks.

Their origins are almost certainly pre-Christians (since the East has nothing like them); they happen to roughly correlate to the Celtic festivals of Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh and Samhain. One Ember Week occurs in each of the four seasons; the word ember derives from the Anglo-Saxon ymbren, a circuit or revolution, and clearly relates here to the annual cycle of the year.

They were taken off the official church calendar with the reforms of Vatican II, their observance left to the discretion of individual bishops.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Daily Prayer: Tuesday Day

Our vocation is not simply to be, but to work together with God in the creation of our own life., our own identity, our own destiny. This means that we should not passively exist, but actively participate in His creative freedom, in our own lives, and in the lives of others, by choosing the truth.

To put it better, we are even called to share with God the work of creating the truth of our identity. We can evade this responsibility by playing with masks, and this pleases us because it can appear at times to be a free and creative way of living. It is quite easy, it seems, to please everyone. But in the long run the cost and the sorrow come very high.

To work out our own identity in God, which the Bible calls, "working out our salvation," is a labor that requires sacrifice and anguish, risk and many tears. It demands close attention to reality at every moment, and great fidelity to God as He reveals Himself, obscurely, in the mystery of each new situation.

We do not know clearly beforehand what the result of this work will be. The secret of my full identity is hidden in Him. He alone can make me who I am, or rather who I will be when at last I fully begin to be. But unless I desire this identity and work to find it in Him, the work will never be done.

The way of doing it is a secret I can learn from no one else but Him. There is no way of attaining to the secret without faith. But contemplation is the greater and more precious gift, for it enables me to see and understand the work that He wants done.

Daily Prayer: Monday Dark


In my ending is my meaning
says the season.
No clock: only heart's blood
Only the word.

O lamp
weak friend
in the knowing night!

O tongue of flame
Under the heart
Speak softly:
For love is black
says the season.

Kissed with flame!
See! See!
My love is darkness!

Only in the Void
are all ways one:

Only in the night
are all the lost

In my ending is my meaning.


Be still
Listen to the stones of the wall.
Be silent, they try
to speak your

to the living walls.
Who are you?
are you? Whose
silence are you?

Who (be quiet)
are you (as these stones
are quiet). Do not
think of what you are
still less of
what you may one day be.
be what you are (but who?) be
The unthinkable one
You do not know.

O be still, while
you are still alive,
and all things live around you
speaking (I do not hear)
To your own being,
Speaking by the unknown
That is in you and in themselves.

"I will try, like them
To be my own silence:
and this is difficult. The whole
World is secretly on fire. The stones
burn, even the stones
they burn me. How can a man be still or
listen to all things burning? How can he dare
to sit with them when
all their silence
is on fire?"

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Cliff Notes: The First Urban Christians

Hilariously, the final chapter of this outstandingly dry and recitative book begins with the disclaimer that "the description that follows avoids strong theoretical assumptions."

It is, I believe, I little late for that advance knowledge.

At any rate, the question of the formation of early Christianity is the question of unity, among believers as well as their beliefs; one body believes in one Christ, one God. Christian monotheism is Judaic monotheism. This provided a ready contrast to the social diversity, complexity, and plurality of the broader Roman Empire.

Yet the point was not just that Christianity was internally united around a set of social symbols; it was unified over and against the outside world, bound with bonds of affection that would express precisely the honor of the one God. So that while Paul makes such abundant reference to the Jews, there is no mention of, or any evidence of, contact between the early churches and the Diaspora synagogues.

Of course, this was only a provisional separation; Pauline Christianity sought to bring absolutely everyone into the inner circle, hence their zeal for far-flung evangelism. And hence the need to refrain from some kinds of contact with the broader world, but never to fear contamination from it.

This over-and-against was only temporary because of the eschatological nature of early Christianity- Jesus' resurrection was not, for them, a timeless act for personal redemption, but the first act in the end of days which would judge everyone. The early Christians looked forward to a series of events in the immediate future that would transform every social relationship.

The early Christians were by their nature socially dissatisfied, and looked forward to the difference. They perceived their status in the eyes of the others to be less than it would ultimately be. They were the best living embodiments of cognitive dissonance.

So early Christianity invariably combined the traditional with the radically new. By so doing, it was able to move a fairly traditional culture- the broader Roman Empire- toward a radical world view and ethos without sacrificing continuity with the Empire's longer history.

Their eschatological vision both explained present circumstance and recommended a specific outlook and set of dispositions. It was given to them by Paul through a revelation of Jesus Christ. It defended the radically new in terms drawn from the old. The radically new was already attested to in ancient Scripture.

There is nothing new under the urban sun, even these radical claims about the end of days, even this assertion that He would also raise us, even our exaltation and enthronement. As Christ was first weak, then powerful, so too will weak and afflicted Christians be vindicated and glorious.

Thus early Christianity presented a picture of sons of light against suns of darkness, of spiritual powers at war with one another and with God- but pacified and reconciled by Christ's ascension through the astral spheres. Personal struggles of immorality, weakness, bondage, fear and suffering and even the tension between Jews and Gentiles accrue cosmic importance.

This eschatological background was disseminated by highly mobile leaders whose constant concern was unity. The local groups they formed were intimate and exclusive, with strong boundaries, commitment, and interpersonal engagement. They believed in a shift in the order of the world. A truly heterogeneous mix of people, they were weak in one or more terms of social power and status, but exhilarated by experiences of power in their meetings.

Early Christianity, then, and the central symbol of a crucified savior, did not so much prescribe individual expectations so much as it described what was happening to these ambiguously-statused people. The low were being, as it were, raised up.

That concludes this Cliff Notes series. Now get ready for the Qur'an.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Cliff Notes: The First Urban Christians

Early Christianity was only tenuously a religion- rather, one much more like talkative, passionate, and quarrelsome social circles. They lacked shrines, temples, statues, sacrifices, public festivals, dances, music, pilgrimages, and even inscriptions.

Yet they did have rituals, symbolic action representing what the society deems important- and without which, indeed, a society may not be possible, as social relationships require symbolic acts.

The two rituals which Christianity obviously had were, of course, baptism and the Lord's supper. But they also met regularly, which itself becomes a ritual- weekly and on Sundays, as it happens.

What happened at these meetings? Chanting and singing, as evidenced by Paul's periodic hymns and psalms. It is also likely, though not certain, that assemblies read from Scripture; we also know that some preached by making proclamations, and others taught. We might also assume that exhortations of the sort found in the Epistles were also common in conversation there.

The only thing special about these rituals was their blend of the familiar and the novel- an outsider would have recognized all of these things, but also would have thought their combination and application altogether strange.

But these numinous rituals accomplished three key things: they increased feelings of solidarity, upped the prestige of individuals, and marked the occasion as solemn.

Baptism, of course, was a more solemn ritual than most, miming Christ's death and resurrection. These were most likely full immersions in water, with the baptized performing the rite naked- likely in a river, or, failing that opportunity, with a tub and a bowl. The baptized took off and put on clothing to signify the "old man" and the "new human". They might also have shouted out Abba to signify their new intimacy with God as heavenly father.

The Eucharist was a rather more subtly symbolic affair. It likely alluded to the festival meals common in all voluntary associations- especially with those of the burial clubs that commemorated the deaths and interment of their members. They included the saying of Christ, "this is my body" and "this is my blood" as ritual pronouncements.

And just as in those burial clubs, the wealthy members likely hosted these meals for everyone, as patrons- this eventually led to disputes. But this could not be, precisely because of the nature of the ritual: all the members were one body, the body of Christ. They were sharing a holy meal within a sacred world of symbols; this dissolved the boundary between rich and poor as much as it dismantled the boundary between Gentile and Jew.

And no, no one still knows what the baptism for the dead was all about. Sorry.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Notice: Wikicreedia Update

Because the project really began here, I hope to update everyone here as it goes along.

I'm pleased to announce that the first Wikicreedia Forum was a success. Attendance and interest were gratifying, and I was as clear and publicly confident as I can ever remember being- all of which bodes well for the project. At the Forum, I retold the story of Wikicreedia's origin as a confluence of a class on the Nicene Creed and an NPR report on emerging uses of wikis as democratic technology.

I emphasized the following aspects of Wikis:

* A wiki invites all users to edit any page with any vanilla Web browser.

* A wiki promotes meaningful associations by making link creation intuitively easy.

* A wiki involves the visitor in an ongoing process of creation that constantly changes the site.

*A wiki enables collaborative documents.

And I emphasized what might be aspects of a Wiki creed:

Narrative. It could describe moments when Christian faith was formed or tested or changed. It could help Christians think about their experience, and tell the things about belief that the rest of the world might not know.

Brevity. Conciseness could help Christians name specific tenets of ordinary faith today- and the most essential ones at that.

Positive and confessional. It could avoid preaching and editorializing. We could tell each other what we do believe, rather than quibbling over things that others might or might not.

Ordinary, modern English. A creed is only as relevant so far as its believers might understand it, and the Wiki creed could be one that believers take with them out into the world.

I then introduced the Wikicreedia advertising and roll-out timeline (though it's always open to everyone):

Avent 08->Easter 09: wiki for Gethsemane with early ideas and first content
Easter 09->Advent 09: wiki for downtown and regional churches
Advent 09->Easter 10: wiki for national, Catholic and Orthodox churches.
Easter 10->Easter 11: wiki for all Christians worldwide
Easter 11->Easter 12: final versions of the Wikicreed

Finally, I announced the group that will meet to produce first-page content, which is @Gethsemane on Sat, Dec 6 @10:00 AM- with a few further meetings likely to follow.

As I said, I enjoyed this all immensely, and hope to be a good steward of Wikicreedia going forward.

Comments? Questions? Let me know.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Notice: The Next Cliff Notes Series

I'm pleased to announce that, whenever I finished summarizing all there is to summarize about The First Urban Christians, I'll be moving on to embrace...The Meaning of the Qur'an. I can't summarize the Qur'an, it seems, because no one has ever translated it. You can't. In Islamic circles, part of the Qur'an is the Arabic language. The most you can do is translate the meaning.

So there. Now you've learned something.

What Does the Islamic Crescent Mean?

The crescent recognizable as a symbol of Islam is actually half of another symbol of Islam, the star-and-crescent. Also a secular national symbol, it has been featured on many Middle Eastern flags. The conflation has occured from the beginning of Islam, though the symbol's origins likely spring from a time far earlier.

The star and crescent as astronomical phenomema figured predominately in the religions of Central Asia and Siberia. It was raised in Byzantium upon the city's founding, possibly as a reference to the Greek goddess Diana, or possibly to commemorate a Roman victory over local Goths. All of this merely says that the star and crescent figured predominately in the consciousness of the people of the Middle East and Asia Minor.

Its actual affiliation with Islam began with the founding of the Ottoman empire. Prior to that, Islam had adopted no common symbols, perhaps through its strong aversion to iconography. But, legendarily, Osman I, founder of the Ottoman Empire had a dream in which he saw the cresent moon stretching from one end of the earth to the other.

So, in 1453, when the Turks conquered Constantinople, the took up the standard, and the crescent and star were married to Islam from that point on. Though the star paired with the crescent has five pillars that might correlate to the Five Pillars, this formation is not common.

The use of the star and crescent are not without controversy in Islam today, as its adoption seems to have been cued by a misunderstanding and an historical accident linked (mostly by outsiders) to the violent growth of an Empire long after the time of Mohammed.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Daily Prayer: Sunday Dark

City, when we see you coming down,
Coming down from God
To be the world's new crown:
How shall they all sing, the fresh, unsalted seas
Hearing your harmonies!

For there is no more death,
No need to cure those waters, now, with any brine;
Their shores give them no dead,
Rivers no blood, no rot to stain them.
Because the cruel algebra of war
Is now no more.

And the steel circle of time, inexorable,
Bites like a padlock shut, forever,
In the smoke of the last bomb:
And in that trap the murderers and sorcerers
and crooked leaders
Go rolling home to hell.
And history is done.

Shine with your lamb-light, shine upon the world:
You are the new creation's sun.
And standing on their twelve foundations,
Lo, the twelve gates that are One Christ are wide as canticles:
And Oh I Begin to hear the thunder of the songs
within the crystal Towers,
While all the saints rise from their earth with feet like light
And fly to tread the quick-gold of those streets,

Oh City, when we see you sailing down,
Sailing down from God,
Dressed in the glory of the Trinity, and angel-crowned
In nine white diadems of liturgy.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Daily Prayer: Saturday Dusk

The feminine principle in the world
is the inexhaustable source of creative realizations
of the Father's glory.

She is His manifestation in radiant splendor!
But she remains unseen, glimpsed only by a few.
Sometimes there are none who know her at all.

Sophia is the mercy of God in us.
She is the tenderness with which the infinetely mysterious
power of pardon
turns the darkness of our sins into the light of grace.

She is the inexhaustable fountain of kindness,
and would almost seem to be, in herself, all mercy.
So she does in us a greater work than that of Creation:
the work of new being in grace, the work of pardon,
the work of transformation from brightness to brightness
tanquam a Domini Spiritu.

She is in us the yielding and tender counterpart
of the power, the justice, and creative dynamism of the Father.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Editorial: The Beams of Love

The second sermon I've ever preached.

The Beams of Love

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your people, and kindle in us the fire of your love.

“And we are put on earth a little space
that we may learn to bear the beams of love’

So wrote the poet William Blake, and I suppose I’m going to have to ask you to do some bearing. See, I was excited to preach again, because the last time I preached about love. And that went great. But that’s a tried and true subject. You can’t beat love. So I was eager to do some other text, some other topic. I wanted to see what I could do with different material.

And then from the lectionary I got…the Great Commandment.

But that’s all right. Love is not obvious. And on it hang all the law and the prophets. So let’s talk about the prophet of the law, who was not surpassed. That’s what Deuteronomy says: “Since then there has not arisen in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face.”

Now the text says that this was because of the signs and wonders, because of his mighty deeds and terrifying displays of power. But I think that’s a little incurious. It’s a little too easy. Because Scripture is quite clear that all of those deeds against Pharaoh and his servants, were God’s doing. God supplies the signs. God does the mighty works.

What we have to ask is why God chose Moses, and why Moses kept on going. Because Moses knew how all of this would end. God told him he wasn’t going to make it. He would be punished for his presumption in the Wilderness of Zin, when he did equate his signs with God’s. So it’s not for him. And God told him what would happen to the people who would go in: “this people will rise and play the harlot with the gods of the foreigners of the land…they will forsake Me and break My covenant, and I will forsake them and hide My face from them and they shall be devoured.”

So what does Moses do? He blesses them by tribe. His last will and testament is a blessing. “Happy are you, O Israel. Who is like you, a people saved by the LORD.” Now this is the same man who, when faced with the instantaneous disobedience of these people beside Mount Sinai said to God, “Yet now, if you will forgive their sin- but if not, I pray, blot me out of your book which you have written.”

In other words, kill me if you won’t forgive them. But now he knows that all of this, all his years of patience and pleading and sacrifice, will only end in his punitive death and the failure of his people. But he leads them and blesses them- just before he dies and they bury him in a soon forgotten grave.

Love is not obvious. You’ve got to pay attention.

But now I’ve got to talk about my own patriarch. Growing up, I saw that my father was racist. Actually, more accurately, I soon people who weren’t, and learned the difference. But I could not now number the hate-filled diatribes and derogatory terms that filled my childhood. I heard the n-word more than I would care to recall. My father is not a modern man. He can seem a relic representing the worst parts of previous generations.

Then my sister had a child. So now my old man sits on the couch and dandles his illegitimate black granddaughter on his knee. On his knee! Dandles her on his knee!

Now this is not a story of conversion. My father still harbors many views that I never will. But this is a story that says that we are all, each and every one of us, larger than our ideologies. And this is to say that the fact of her, just her innocence and her familial bond, has overcome a few of the lies my father tells himself.

What I don’t understand is who the student is. Is he learning perspectives entirely new to him? What does she understand? Or am I merely to observe a man larger than my conception of him?

And we are put on earth a little space/ that we might learn to bear the beams of love. These developments are not obvious.

Now when I was still in college I noticed, in the way that a young man might notice, a friend of many friends. She transformed before my eyes! But I failed to act on my affections, not because I kept them secret- I did not- but because I did not believe that they were important. I felt that they would go away, as these things tend to do. I did not want to deviate from course, from my academic clarity.

Then she left for Oxford and then for China, and I found that I cared for her very much more than I supposed.

Now I will never know if anything could have happened differently. But I know what did happen was that I did not recognize and refused to understand what was actually going on.

Love is not obvious! You’ve got to pay attention!

Now I’m not here to scandalize my family or bore you with my love life. My father is in other ways an honorable man, capable of long self-sacrifice. And my romantic blunders have been surpassed by many. But I am here to say that I hope you don’t consider love to be the greatest commandment, unless of course you need to.

See, commandment’s a difficult word. It sounds like rigid obedience and unending obligation. It doesn’t sound much like passionate prophets and the lively law of God. So I hope you consider the love of God and neighbor to be not the greatest commandment, but, as I do, the greatest opportunity.

Now we’re going to get a couple of chances, here at Gethsemane. In a few weeks, maybe but very soon, we’re going to get the opportunity to serve over at the Drake Hotel. I don’t know exactly what we’re going to do. But I know the basic ingredients, because those never change.

Love is simple, says my mentor of fifteen years. All you do is, you take what you do for yourself: your clothes, your food, your medical care, your attention, whatever you’ve learned- you take that stuff, and you do it for someone else, who needs it. That’s it. That’s love. The proportions and intensity might vary, but that’s love. That’s all you have to do. According to Scripture, it’s all you ever have to do.

It might sound more complicated than that. People start talking about available resources. Reading Gethsemane’s history, as I have a little bit, it might be easy to say that this Drake Hotel seems like something we would have done when we were larger. But I say that confuses the issue. Rather, we would have been larger precisely because we did things like the Drake Hotel.

Besides, we all know that Jesus went somewhere, after he died. He went ahead to prepare a place for us. Of course, He might have just gone on up to heaven. But because He said that loving your neighbor was the same as loving God, and because he said that whatever we do for the least of these, we do for Him, I think he might have gone someplace else.

Now He was a carpenter. So I submit that just maybe He went on over there to the Drake Hotel. With all those cockroaches and all that human need. Maybe He had a different kind of paradise in mind. And maybe He went ahead to set it up for us.

Love is not obvious. You’ve got to pay attention.

So that’s the first opportunity. The second is this: in a few weeks I’m going to host a forum. And that forum is going to be about a very strange word: Wikicreedia. Now what in the world is that?

It’s a transformation, or it could be. Every week we say a beautiful, archaic thing, here: the Nicene Creed. We say it with many churches all around the world. But how many of us understand it? How many of us know exactly what we say?

That creed was written two thousand years ago, by bishops countering a proliferation of heresies. They had a lot on their minds. They did not address everything. They left out the greatest commandment: they left out love. You won’t find the word in there.

But in the two thousand years since then a lot has happened. Most notably, we’ve had the priesthood of believers. The tenets of our faith no longer come from bishops. So we have a great opportunity. Using this thing called a wiki, an interactive program on the internet, we have the chance to come together and articulate our own beliefs, for ourselves, for the very first time.

Each and every one of us can have a voice in common Christianity. With Wikicreedia we can now write, cooperatively and over the next four years, our very own creed. And in a time of great disunity among believers, we might articulate something that lasts for another two thousand years. And we might come together all across the world to give something to the generations of believers coming after us.

Now I’m not, myself, going to insist that love be written into that creed. That’s what a wiki, what this technology, is all about: everything we say, we say together. But I do hope to write love into the conversation. We’re going to need it, after all, if Evangelicals and Orthodox and Catholics can all get together and agree on the fundamentals of the Christian faith. Right? It’s going to be difficult.

And we are put on earth a little space/ That we might learn to bear the beams of love.

That’s the conversation we need to have. It’s the encounter, it’s the understanding that writes love inside our hearts, and, if we pay attention, lets us see each other with the eyes of Christ, which are the eager eyes of love.


Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Cliff Notes: The First Urban Christians

Internal structures of power quickly became important for the early Christians, as they would for any young communities. Aside from the communal meals, which soon became subject to dispute and arbitration- rich Christians could not hold a private, choice meal apart from the others- early urban Christians sought in other ways to establish a limited social space for consensus.

First, Paul and his lieutenants set about energetically establishing a new reality: a shared vision of the world created by combining existing symbols -again such as the body, the burial meal, the Roman family- in exciting and transformed ways. Thus, while the early Christians continued to go about their ordinary, everyday lives, they did so as part of an alternate vision of those lives.

Thus, Christians effectively lived double lives, in a community that was both closed and open. Thus, Paul relegates sexual purity as an internal affair-if someone were called a brother and a pornos, do not eat with him- but do this and similar things for the way in which Christians would be perceived by outsiders. Christians were encourage to behave according to the standards of outsiders, as well as with the standards of God.

Early Christians believed in the unity of mankind- hence the stance of obedience toward authorities, the equality of Jew and Gentile and the equal status of women. The cosmic baptism of humanity by Christ had a great deal to do with these beliefs, yet they were the only people who had the true meaning of their symbols. This was the great tension of early Christianity- strong internal cohesion opposed to normal relations with the outside world, including proselytism.

Of course, not all tensions are negative, and this likely drove the Christians to become a worldwide people: intimate local communities united within a broader organization. It was not named after the disestablished ecclesia- the local town gatherings of Roman males all across the empire- for nothing.

The supralocal community worked quite well, with established rituals of the obvious kiss between believers and the full expectation of hospitality for traveling brothers and sisters. These were all reminders of a much broader fellowship- as was the gathering for the church in Jerusalem.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Cliff Notes: The First Urban Christians

Because social status is not the measurement of one rank for any person, but a composite of several social ranks- power, prestige, income, education, purity, family, and local status- the rank of an individual would be the mean of these rankings. More, social rank is most often evaluated not by other people, but by the individual his or her self.

Thus, to say the early Christianity was a movement of the uneducated or the poor and ignorant, as has been described, is to make rather too broad of an assumption- especially since many of our current categories simply do no apply to Roman society.

Rather, what is more pertinent is to say that Roman society produced a great deal of status inconsistency- of an individual's holding unequal rank across several of these categories. This results in status-crossing (as in the case of a freed and subsequently wealthy slave). These are experiences of anxiety that encourage people to work to change society.

Thus, Christianity was able, from its earliest origins, to gather people from a broad spectrum of society- and much prospographic evidence testifies to this.

Christianity, in its cross-section of society, touched and mimicked four institutions:

1. the Roman voluntary association, where wealthy persons acted as patrons for poorer members

2. the synagogue, a local religious institution with ties to a larger world of diaspora Jews

3. the philosophical school, where a key group of trained leaders circulated among Roman cities instructing new converts

4. the Roman household, where members of a family shared intimacy delineated by careful boundaries

The early church itself formed in carefully structured ways. First, Paul especially was certain to speak quite emotionally of Christians as a very special group. He spoke as if they were family, and repeated the terms among various churches, with great respect.

Thus, the church began to supplant previously existing networks of relationships. It began to form the body of Christ, the Pauline term for Christianity borrowed from Greek rhetoric. Early Christian practices such as communion and baptism formed part of a network of shared symbols emphasized each time Christians met together.

This network of symbols set them apart from broader society even as it energized existing relations within the churches. The first urban Christians held the secret meaning of these symbols- a crucified savior, for example- as the very center of their growing faith.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Does Social Service conflict with Social Justice?

In a speech I heard today by Julian Bond, the chairman of the NAACP, Bond responded to a question about the rates of volunteerism among the younger generation (contextually, everyone considered a youth vote-that is, everyone 18- 30).

He concluded that, while extraordinary and commendable, the high rates of volunteering among our nation's youth end up in hours almost entirely in social service-Habitat for Humanity and similar organizations. This was not true in the 50's and 60's, when America's young people worked stridently for social justice- social change in civic centers.

"If you had social justice," he concluded, "you would not need social service."

That, I've decided, was a deliberately provocative statement. And because this is not an editorial but something different, I'm establishing some rules: first, let's set aside the issue of generational difference. There's not much we can do about it at any rate. And let's set aside the conflicts of the 60's, which I've never considered particularly interesting; this includes the question of ennabling dependency vs. addressing need. And, to be monkish about it, let's put it in a Gospel context- what advances the Kingdom of God?

So, all of that being said, does social service conflict with social justice? Obviously, we should and must do both. But, given a limited lifetime and finite resources, is my generation's propensity for ladling soup and spackling the homeless itself a sort of injustice by ommission? Or is the act of giving of oneself for the sake of others the most justice one can ever do, whatever comes of it? Obviously, pace Paul, we must answer individual callings- but should we consider our broader social context when doing so?

This is usually when I yell at myself about being abstract. But we're talking about real people acting toward other real people in very real ways. It would behoove us to know if we're better off going down to People Serving People or applying to work for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. And the real decline of talent in civic service is a hugely lamentable thing- but the Church's role as the hub of charity to millions cannot be overlooked, and it's on the decline, too.

Perhaps it's the split, not of ideology, but of people, that buggered us.

I'd be curious, too, about where liberation theology would come down on the question. What would the poor themselves think about this? What can we learn in the faces of the poor in this regard?

Well, this is your chance to editorialize! I haven't decided yet myself, so I'd like to know what you think! It is not good, after all, for Curious Monk to be alone.

I look forward to your comments below.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Daily Prayer: Tuesday Dawn

We are what we love. If we love God, in whose image we were created, we discover ourselves in him and we cannot help being happy: we have already achieved something of the fullness of being for which we are destined in our creation. If we love everything else but God, we contradict the image born in our very essence, and we cannot help being unhappy, because we are living in a caricature of what we were meant to be.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Daily Prayer: Monday Day


Perhaps I am stronger than I think.
Perhaps I am even afraid of my strength, and turn it against
myself, thus making myself weak.
Making myself secure. Making myself guilty.
Perhaps I am most afraid of the strength of God in me.
Perhaps I would rather be guilty and weak in myself,
than strong in Him who I cannot understand.


And lo! God my God!
Look! Look! I travel in Thy strength.
I swing in the grasp of They love, Thy great Love's
One Strength.
I run Thy swift ways, Thy straightest rails
Until my life become Thy Life and sails or rides
Like an express!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Editorial: God is in the Cheez-Itz

Since the original purpose of this blog was a specific kind of journalism, I suppose it would behoove me to write occasionally about an actual event. So, that being said, the recent Interfaith Church Crawl was a rousing, if rather extended epic, success. A group of over 20 people listened to a short talk in each of three sacred spaces: Masjid An-Nur, Temple Israel, and St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral.

What made it worth going, though, was when the Jewish organizer of the event said, "We really don't need any more Christians" regard to that faith's over- representation in the program.

Beyond that, the three talks, each by a member of the downtown clergy, described the sacred space each Abrahamic faith incorporates into religious life.

The Islamic faith creates a sacred space around each of its adherents. The worship area denotes a small space around each person specifically for prayer and standing, bowing, and prostrating. To my idiotically small understanding of Islam, this makes sense as the five pillars center around individual practice and individual devotion.

This is not to say that Islam cannot generate communities of faith- quite the opposite, the nation of Islam considering- but it is to say that its theological intention of Islam is the submission of the individual before God. Prayer may be stronger in groups, teaching and instruction occur in groups, but the basic building unit of Islam is the individual believer.

Temple Israel, alternatively, denotes sacred space in a different fashion, and for a different reason. That is to say that it does not center on the person at all. Everything in the sanctuary of the Temple- yep, they use the word sanctuary, too- orients one not toward the practice of prayer but to the center of the service: which is, of course, the five scrolls of the Torah.

A hint to what I mean: because the scrolls are all that matter, anyone can read them. There are no clergy among the (reformed) Jews, we learn. There are only professional Jews. Faithful Jewish observers emphasize the text so much that memorization takes second seat to reading one's marriage vows aloud.

Christian sacred space seemed a bit harder to describe, but I believe that we got there anyway. Because we got into an extended discourse on the apostolic succession and the communion between Anglican and Catholic bishops. Now this may seem a pedantic point, and, as I said to the Vicar, "but it's quintessentially Christian to exaggerate trivial distinctions to the point of absurdity."

Morever, it only matter because nothing matters more to Christianity that the body of its believers. The building block of Christianity is not now and never has been the individual but has always been the ecclesia, the body of believers per the example of Paul's letters. So disputes about who is holy and who is allowed to do what end up mattering a very great deal.

As I said in an aside, "There is no holier space than the space between us." In other words, Christians sit in pews. All in a row, all in the same overturned boat. "Wherever two or more are gathered in my name, there am I..." We could just as easily have gone to Chipotle and broken out our Bibles, though this might be harder to do with some Episcopalians than others.

I've said it before, I'll say it again: Imagine two friends sitting on a couch. They're watching a DVD, maybe it's the Incredibles. They have a snack on the cushion between them: bright red box, little yellow crackers. At the same time, they both reach in. Their hands touch. There is a frisson, a shiver, a moment of unexpected connection.

That's Christianity. God is in the Cheez-itz. The most sacred space of all.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Cliff Notes: The First Urban Christians

Change in social status was a factor in the growth of early Christianity. However, status itself is never simple and is a composite of several economic, cultural, and political factors.

For instance, trademen could rank quite high in Roman culture economically, but would not rank as high culturally, not being tied in to Greco-Roman arts and tastes. And someone as socially low in status as a slave could become a philosopher or a successful business owner, but would always carry the social stigma of slavery.

What is true of Christianity in its early days is that is set about equalizing the social status of key groups of individuals. That is to say that a slave or former slave carried no social stigma in Christian belief- one can see where this would be compelling for a freed slave trying to make his or her way in a Roman world and never quite getting there.

Similarly, though women could be wealthy and manage households under Roman custom it is only in Christianity that their sex carried no social disregard- and it precisely the women who brought Christianity into the Roman upper classes.

And though the army would only later become an engine for the spread of Christianity, it was key as another place where social status could be leveled out- Roman soldiers could earn high respect but never be wealthy; Christian communal practice of sharing wealth and seeing great wealth as an impediment to spirit might have done well to help their conversion along.

So it is not surprising that Christianity spread in precisely the places where these status inconsistencies proliferated: in the Roman household, in the Greco-Roman club, and in the tradehouses and places of work in Roman cities. Rather we should only note that it spread as swiftly and freely as an illness or contagion of those existing Roman institutions.

These were the places of relationship in Roman society, and Paul went there if he failed to succeed in the initial Jewish synagogues. Indeed, the most significant thing about Roman cities is their lack of private space. Extremely dense even by modern standards, every urban place was public or semi-public. Word- of anything- thus spread rapidly. Initial contacts spread the word- to everyone, including those who most wanted to hear.

Another key factor in spreading the contagion of early Christianity would have been an ethnic community internal to each Roman city- especially the Jewish sections. A new convert would thus be even more immediately connected to members of club, broader family and fellow practitioners of his trade.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Cliff Notes: The First Urban Christians

Paul was a city person. Where Christ's language rings with rural Aramaic, Paul writes fluent urban Greek. He uses Greek rhetorical devices from gymnasium, stadium, and work- his own work of tentmaking being itself an urban trade. He was such an urban person that he only ever describes the city, the wilderness, and the sea. He lacks the language for the productive Roman countryside. He seems not to see it.

Thus the Christian mission he embarked on seems an urban trend. He preached in flourishing Hellenistic cities. He was not alone in doing so; every city boasted a large and vigorous Jewish community- the country rarely had them. What we call Pauline Christianity was the urban trend of a broader religious movement, and just as city Judaism was, urban Christianity was the largest and most developed flavor of its faith.

In moving from rural Jesus-ism to urban Christianity, the following of Christ had to pass the most fundamental divide of its time- the breach between city and country, polis and province- and changed irrevocably as a result.

It did so at perhaps the most turbulent time of the Roman empire: at its beginning. As they transformed their domain from republic to empire, Rome's rulers used the city as an instrument of imperial power- as modeled by their hero Alexander. Each of their cities contained a citizen body, a governing council, and a gymnasium, all in good Greek fashion.

The Pax Romana occurred as part and parcel of this movement. Octavian's commonwealth of partially self-governing cities meant stability, security, and consistent justice. It allowed the hope for any justice at all. As the Roman empire spread east into provinces such as Judea, it shifted the relationships among persons and classes; Augustus put the system of patronage to good and full use.

Cities brought the chance, however slim, of economic and social mobility. Urban society became more complex. Cities attracted large groups of foreigners insistent on maintaing ethnic identity through religious cults and voluntary associations.

All of these changes happened in reaction to Roman authority and power. And they did not happen simply: not all rich supported Rome, anymore than all the poor opposed it. But cities were the places where everything happened, especially new cities which offered the most chances for new life.

The shared Greek language of urbanity meant to some degree a common Greek culture, the unity in the expanding Rome's diversity. Common culture meant shared commerce, especially maritime trade. Cities were the hubs of Roman travel, easier then than until the nineteenth century.

Travellers brought Christianity with them, just at they transmitted Rome's many pagan cults.

Next: four modes of social change in Roman cities

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Daily Prayer: Wednesday Dawn


Although we know no hills, no country rivers,
Here in the jungles of our waterpipes and iron ladders,
Our thoughts are quieter than rivers,
Our loves are simpler than the trees,
Our prayers deeper than the sea.


We have found, we have found,
the places where the rain is deep and silent.
We have found the fountains of the spring,
where the Lord emerges refreshed every morning!
He has laid His hand upon our shoulders
and our heart, like a bird, has spoken!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

What are the Different Kinds of Monks?

Other than the curious? There are indeed several different sorts, depending on what they practice.

Cenobitic monks live in community. They believe in communal life, and they live together with other monks in a religious order, under a religious rule, or set of orders. They meet more than occasionally for prayer, and may or may not have contact with lay believers and the outside world. They began to live in communities because of the hardship and possible damage of the extremely isolated hermit life.

Most commonly cenobitic monks have lived in cells, which originally had much in common with the cells of Roman army barracks. St. Pachomius originated this monastic form, and inspired many others to follow after the 4th century of the common era.

The aforementioned hermits were the first monks, taking to the Egyptian desert during the Roman occupation of the Holy Land. Formally, they are called eremetic. Originally, these men and women sought to emulate the Hebrews wandering in the wilderness and Christ's time of trials. Eremetic monks seek to praise God and- through penance and prayer- lovingly serve humanity. They often live in natural caves or humble huts of their own construction.

Paul of Thebes was the first hermit in Egypt, and likely the first Christian hermit ever. He soon began the eremtic tradition of taking on followers and disciples; the practice later allowed some monks to become so honored that they lacked any physical solitude at all. Historically, their role has been flexible, with many of the early monks weaving baskets in exchange for bread, with medieval monks serving as gatekeepers or ferrymen, and with today's ermetic monks living under broader monastic orders.

Moreover, ermitic life is no longer necessarily a lifelong occupation- many monks seek a hermitage only for a period. Many others now serve under the direction of their local bishop.

This leads to the final variety of monk, the one living in skete. The Christian hermits who make up a skete worship in isolation, but come together for mutual support and safety. Typically, a skete consists of a common house of worship surrounded by individual hovels for its members. The skete has largely vanished in the West, but has more support in the Orthodox church.

I am not yet any kind of literal monk, though I've long held wishes.

Next question?

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Daily Prayer: Sunday Dusk

Justify my soul, O God,
from your fountains fill my will with fire.

Shine on my mind, "be darkness to my experience,"
occupy my heart with your tremendous Life.

Let my eyes see nothing in the world but Your glory,
and let my hands touch nothing that is not for Your service.

Let my tongue taste no bread that does not strengthen me
to praise Your great mercy.

I will hear Your voice and I will hear all harmonies You
have created,

singing Your hymns to find joy in giving You glory.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Daily Prayer: Thursday Dawn


The fire of a wild white sun has eaten up the distance between
hope and despair.

Dance in this sun, you tepid idiot. Wake up and dance in the
clarity of perfect contradiction.


There is a silent self within us whose presence is disturbing precisely because it is is silent; it can't be spoken. It has to remain silent. To articulate it, to verbalize it, is to tamper with it and in some ways destroy it.

Now let us frankly face the fact that our culture is one which is geared in many ways to help us evade any need to face this inner, silent self. We live in a state of constant semiattention to the sound of voices, music, traffic, or the generalized noise of what goes on around us all the time.

This keeps us immersed in a flood of racket and words, a diffuse medium in which our consciousness is half diluted: we are not quite "thinking," not entirely responding, but we are more or less there. We are not fully present and note entirely absent; not fully withdrawn, yet not completely available.

It cannot be said that we are really participating in anything and we may, in fact, be half conscious of our alienation and resentment. Yet we derive a certain comfort from the vague sense that we are "part of something"- although we are not able to define what that something is...we just float along in the general noise.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Cliff Notes: The Historical Jesus

The starting point of a liberating Jesus is the historical Jesus of Nazarath, his life, mission, and fate. This Jesus consists of both a historical element (Jesus) and a transcendental element (Christ). The recognition of this in faith is a gift from God. That is, one cannot simply accept that Jesus Christ was God; one must contemplate the details of the reality and its process.

That we must do so in the language of faith is difficult, as these limit-terms address transcendent processes that we must go through; faith is both word and walk, and one interprets the other. This is true for freedom, love, and life itself. For example, God became a liberator after leading the Hebrews out of Egypt- the term makes little sense before this.

So too did the first believers address the historical facts of Jesus's life- before they confessed him as Christ. Jesus is the way to Christ.

Yet the New Testament is not interested in portraying the historical Jesus, but only the Christ in Jesus. They are always already christologies, and not the materials for a study of Jesus Christ. That they themselves study Christ by going back to the historical Jesus is precisely our starting point as well.

And it has always been the starting point; early Christianity struggled above all else with the scandal of a human Christ. This is possibly because even the term Jesus Christ implies a split; Christ is an adjective, Jesus a noun. It has always been possible to worship a Christ that no longer describes the fact of Jesus of Nazareth.

We should not be surprised that this has happened because christology is, as is all else, a human process, and there exists in the very notion of Jesus Christ an unthinkable and scandalous novelty.

Yet we must make a crucial choice in talking about Jesus Christ, to say "Jesus Christ" or "Christ? He's Jesus." The New Testament says the latter. Thus, the best protection of Christ is to do what the Gospels do and return to the historical Jesus.

This concludes, under protest, this Cliff Notes series. Next I will be summarizing, in much more abbreviated form, a work on the formation of the early church.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Editorial: Upon My Trin-iversary

One warm May night more than five years ago, I sat around with my closest friends talking into the very small hours. We were graduating the next day. For the most part, we talked about how not to, how we could not possibly end this and go our separate ways. We talked about we could live together, intentionally, working as and when we needed to. Furthering our dreams. We planned. This could actually happen, we said. We can really do this. We can buy a house. We can pool our money for a property.

And we could have. All of it could actually have happened, down to the goat cropping grass in the lawn. But it didn't.

I don't doubt that I would have been happier in the intervening years, between 2003 and now, possibly excluding the last, when I have been well enough. I would have by neccesity grown closer to, and not further from, most of the friends that college gave me. I probably wouldn't have been fired twice and had half a dozen jobs in thee years, because I wouldn't have taken jobs I didn't want or need. I wouldn't live a thousand miles away from my family, a fate which seems more and more ambiguous. And above all else, a lonely soul might have lived, for a charmed longer while, a less supremely isolated life.

I would have lived in constant daily contact with other human beings, a fate which seems to me now so remote I can scarcely imagine it.

My solace, the only sense that I can make of this grand not-happening, this supremely pangy non-event, is that it wasn't meant to be. By that I mean that it would have been good, but it would have been a limited good. It would have been a good for me. It might even have been a good for all the rest of us. But I don't think it would have been good for everyone. It wouldn't have been good for France and China and Connecticut and New Jersey and D.C and Tennessee, all the places we eventually went. It wouldn't have been good for Minnesota.

And it wouldn't have been good for Gethsemane. I mean that. I cannot, fortunately I think, see whatever good that I actually do, but I can see that I am here. And that if I were not doing good, I would not be here, and would not be feeling good myself. There certainly have been plenty of opportunities for me to leave, and I certainly have considered them in my three years now, of living here.

But all of this is silly. I only mean that I was afraid that night, talking. I was afraid of everything that was about to end, all the best days of my-little-life-so-far running out like sand. I was afraid of my promise and my indirection and all the opportunities I'd missed so far. I was afraid, not of the future that would happen, whatever that was, but the future that might not happen, all the wants that would not come true, of the things I might not be able to pick up again.

I was not wrong to fear those things. The years since have seen several of them realized. And my motives, all our motives, were pure and good and based on the good we already had. There was nothing wrong with any of that.

But it was not entirely in our hands. It was certainly not in mine. And just because something was not wrong, was not in error, does not mean there is nothing to be learned. And I've learned that I am not my own, not my joy, not my sorrow, not my solace and not my grief. My treasures and time and talents are not mine to hold, anymore than the people I know are my possessions.

We, right now, are choosing our chuch. We are choosing what will happen to Gethsemane. Our future is no more certain now that mine was five years ago. We too face dissolution, not to put too fine a point on it.

What I'm writing to tell you is that you do not need to be afraid. This is a grand and august church, with a far longer history and with a far broader reach than my small group of friends. But no part of it is our posession. It is God's. We are stewards not only of the things we've spent the last month talking aboout, our resources and talents and opportunities.

Rather, we are stewards of this church, of this garden, of this idea of Gethsemane. Each and every one of us.

So it is not enough that we choose how to keep the doors open. It is not enough that we decide how to keep money flowing in and out of our accounts. It is not enough to consider our survival, anymore than it was enough for my friends and I to consider how to stay together.

Rather we must ask how we can be worthy of survival. God has far more options than Gethsemane. And we are only as good to God as we are good to this community. We must think more broadly, as I might have considered the good my friends and I could create wherever we decided to go. The work with the Drake Hotel is an excellent start, but it can only be a start.

Gethsemane Episcopal has a fine tradition. But it does not have a tradition of preserving its tradition. Rather it has a history of being part of Minneapolis, of being tethered to a hospital and an orphanage and Indian communities, of hosting a school and youth programs and counseling centers.

We confuse these things, I think, to say that these things were only possible when we were larger. Rather, I say that we were only larger because we said that these things were possible.

And then we did them.

That's why I decided to stay, about two years ago, when I got the chance to possibly go live with my friends again. Because I already see these things happening at Gethsemane, and I want to see them done.

Thank you.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Daily Prayer: Sunday Day

It is a glorious thing to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one what which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming in becoming a member of the human race. A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one hold the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake.

I have the immense joy of being a member of a race in which God became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

It was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each is in God's eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other. But this cannot be seen, only believed and understood by a particular gift.

-Thomas Merton

Thursday, October 2, 2008

What is Mount Athos?

Mount Athos, also known as the Autonomous Monastic State of the Holy Mountain, is a self-governed monastic state within the Hellenistic Republic. It is situated entirely on one mountain and consists of 20 Eastern Orthodox Monastaries under the patriarchate of Constantinople. It is only accessible by boat. Only males can visit, and only Orthodox males over the age of 18 can reside there.

Also called "the holy mountain," it was legendarily established by the Mary the mother of Christ during a trip with John the Evangelist to visit Lazarus. Nearly shipwrecked, Mary asked Christ for it to be her garden, and Jesus blessed it from the heavens. Historically, the community's origins are less clear. Both pagans and Christians lived there during the 4th Century reign of Constantine I; Christians fled there from persecution both during the Roman reign of Julian the Apostate and the later conquests of the desert regions by Islamists.

Since then, despite greatly varying political and religious climes, Mount Athos has been a nearly constant refuge for contemplative monks and scholars. And as more monasteries arose, the population naturally became more Christian overall.

In modern times, through Greece, it has become a member of the European Union.

Each of the 20 monasteries of the autonomous state is itself self-governing, led by an Abbott. The whole community is administered by a group of four abbots, elected by all the monasteries of the island and subject to the Patriarch of Constantinople.

Except for cats, there are no female animals permitted on the island.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Daily Prayer: Wednesday Dark

There should be at least a room, or some corner where no one will find you and disturb you or notice you. You should be able to untether yourself from the world and set yourself free, loosing all the fine strings and strands of tension that bind you, by sight, by sound, by thought, to the presence of other men.

"But though, when thou shalt pray, enter into thy chamber, and having shut the door, pray to thy Father in secret..." Once you have found such a place, be content with it, and do not be disturbed if a good reason takes you out of it. Love it, and return to it as soon as you can, and do not be quick to change it for another.

-Thomas Merton

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Cliff Notes: A New Image and a New Faith in Christ

Sobrino's second chapter of Jesus the Liberator begins with the assertion that the Church in Latin America has emphasized the divinity of Jesus at the expense of his humanity. This is in direct oppostion to the image that the poor of Jesus have long held: Jesus suffering on the cross for their sake and along with them.

This image is of Christ conquered and annihilated. In this Christ the poor recognized themselves, and from him took patience and resignation.

But this Christ did not stay on the cross. This Christ has become in recent years 'Jesus the Liberator.' This has happened as a self-adjustment of the mass of believers in Latin America, for whom Christ must be both relevant and identifiable. Christ on the cross must remaining the suffereing Jesus of history, but must also have the power to liberate them from the systems of oppression on the continent, and to inspire them to be agents of liberation themselves.

This new image of Christ has led to a new way of living faith in Him. It has led them to martyrdom and an explicit conflict with the systems of oppression. This new faith means first and foremost following Jesus in a historical and existential sense.

The conflict the new believers face results from being specifically for the poor and specifically against their oppressors. That this has occurred after five hundred years of a transcendent, abstract and removed image of Christ as a reconciler without conflict and a savior without condemnation might explain to some degree the violence incurred by and through the shift.

But it does not explain why the image of Christ has not previously raised any questions about centuries of systematic repression and abuse until now. We can only say that this has failed to happen because the Church has severed Christ from Jesus, abstracted God from man, the Messiah from history, and individual sin from collective persecution.

In other words, Christ has been love, without loving anyone specifically, and Christ has been a reconciler who condemned none of the parties, who loved the poor but did not condemn the rich and the self-righteous.

Part of the undoing of this failed image of Christ has been to place him back within trinitarian relationship as a reference point in the Kingdom of God and the God of the Kingdom. To removed Christ from absolute abstraction and place him in relation and in historic specificity.

This image of Jesus, it should be noted, is not precisely new but present in the Church's own authoritative documents which equate salvation with liberation and posit a Christ with partiality for the poor. This image of Christ is also consonant with Christian principles of hope and practice and the presence of Christ in the oppressed, "simply because they are poor."

Most powerfully, then, the poor become a sort of sacrament of the presence of Christ. The poor call us to conversion and to solidarity with lives of service, simplicity and openness to the gifts of God.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Daily Prayer: Monday Dawn

The forms and individual characters of living
and growing things,
of inanimate beings, of animals and flowers and all nature,
consitute their holiness in the sight of God.

Their inscape is their sanctity.
It is the imprint of His wisdom and His reality in them.
The special clumsy beauty of this particular
colt on this day in this field under these clouds
is a holines consecrated to God by His own
creative wisdom
and it declares the glory of God.

The pale flowers of the dogwood ourside this window
are saints.
The little yellow flowers that nobody notices on the edge of
that road are saints
looking up into the face of God.

This leaf has its own texture and its own pattern of veins
and its own holy shape,
and the bass and trout hiding in the deep pools of the river
are canonized by their beauty and their strength.

The lakes hidden among the hills are saints,
and the sea too is a saint who praises God
without interruption
in her majestic dance.

The great, gashed, half-naked mountain is another
of God's saints.
There is no other like him.
He is alone in his own character;
nothing else in the world ever did or ever will imitate God
in quite the same way.
That is his sanctity.

But what about you? What about me?

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Cliff Notes: Jesus the Liberator

Jon Sobrino, a Spanish-born Jesuit theologian in El Salvador, has written numerous books about Jesus Christ and Latin American spirituality and theology over the last thirty years.

His 'Jesus the Liberator' takes the suffering poor of El Salvador as a starting point for understanding Christ. The resulting picture is of Jesus Christ as historically liberating and as carrying a liberating message of the Kingdom of God as a kingdom through, and on behalf of, the poor.

Sobrino begins the volume with a confessional introduction. Why write a christology? More specifically, why write yet another christology? Generally, Because liberation and crucifixion, hope and persecution, remain a central tension within Christianity, and one that can only be reconciled by understanding Jesus Christ.

Because the re-emergence of a historical understanding of Christ means a new understanding of Christ, and one that has already been fruitful for believers. Because the mystery of Christ is not an abundance of darkness, but an over-abundance of luminosity. Because Christ ill-considered can be Christ abused as an instrument of oppression. And because it is the necessary means of giving reasons for the hope that Christians have, and, simultaneously, the vital articulation of a Christ glimpsed by the silenced people of the world.

Why Sobrino's Christology, in particular? Because in Latin America Christ is still actively present to the masses, and this is not the case in much of the rest of the world. In Africa, he is not present to most. In Eurpose, he is not active. Because in spite of this reality (or perhaps because of it) Christ is mis-used to defend the status quo of oppression in Latin America.

Because Christ asked "Who do you say that I am?" and it is by our answers to this questions that personal and ecclesial change occurs. Because suffering forces thinking, and so suffering for Christ forces thinking about Christ. Because of gratitude for the evangelion, the good news of Christ, which is both Christ's message and the person of Christ himself.

The purpose of Sobrino's christology, then, is to "set forth the truth of Christ from the standpoint of liberation." The resulting Christ will not be entirely original, but will depend heavily on the perspectives from extant and increasing oppression. This Christ will have three aspects: his service to the Kingdom of God, his relationship to God the Father, and his death on the cross.

Such specificity is not distortive or arbitrary, because a liberating approach to Christ is precisely the one more apt to be inclusive than others, and because the study of Christ must result in spiritual goods for believers- something that, again, a liberating Christ is well-poised to accomplish.

Indeed, Sobrino closes by writing, a liberating Christ has already done so. He wrote the book in the middle of a war, of threats, of persecution, of the martyrdom of his colleagues and associates. It is a book for the crucified people of a nation, his country of El Salvadore.

This atomosphere, I would add, gives Sobrino's book about Christ a viscerality absent from nearly any other theological work I have read. It might as well be a book written in blood, and it is with some urgency that I ask my readers to follow me along its thorny path.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Who are the Christian Reformed?

The Christian Reformed Churches (CRC) are a close family of churches descended from the teachings of Protestant Reformers John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli. As such, they emphasize:

the sovereignty of God in all aspects of life
the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture in all matters that it addresses
the primacy of the family as a vehicle of God's love
the centrality of the the Word in worship
the importance of education
the neccesary role of faith in daily life

Ultimately, however, they seceded from other Calvinist churches as those churches increasingly embraced or compromised with the teachings of the Enlightenment, and as class differences between the congregations grew. When persecuted, the grass-roots, poor churches that became the CRC fled the Netherlands for America.

The CRC eventually also split from the Dutch Reformed Church in America for the following reasons: doctrinally unsound preaching, accommodation to American culture, the use of hymns in worship, and the practice of open communion.

This led to the formation of the Christian Reformed Church in 1857. Since, social changes have transformed the church, beginning with the adoption of women to ecclesiastical ministries in the 1960's and the emergence of a debate on race relations. They currently embrace a wide variety of ministries, and have adopted an ecumenical stance:

"We should always, always be looking for opportunities to join with other Christians. We should work with them even if our differences will not allow us, yet, to routinely worship with them. We need to keep reaching out to each other as we continue to reach for our Bibles. We may not always agree on doctrine or on how to worship. But there’s plenty we can agree on that God wants us to do in this impoverished, sin-wracked world. So let’s join efforts and do what needs doing together."

Because their history has seen so much division, church unity remains a central concern for the CRC today. They retain their historical ties to Calvin College, Calvin Theological Seminary, the Institute for Christian Studies and continue their emphasis on education, having produced notable philosophers Alvin Plantigna and Nicholas Walterstorff.

Also, I think, my favorite professor Henry Venema, but that is neither here nor there.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Daily Prayer: Wednesday Dusk

Closing Prayer:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

-Thomas Merton

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Cliff Notes: Conclusions

James begins his ultimate major lecture of the series by reducing religious experience to what he sees as its base and primal elements. These take the form of three core beliefs and their two primary effects:

1. The material world is part of a spiritual universe from which it draws significance.
2. Union or harmony with spiritual reality is our true end.
3. Prayer or communion with the spiritual does real work through spiritual energies in this world.

A. A new energy resides in life as a gift and allows us enchantment or heroism.
B. Assurance in the form of safety, peace, and a abundance of loving affection toward others.

That he has garnered these, James reminds us, from religion's extreme examples does not threaten their value but increases it as an appeal to spiritual experts thoroughly acquainted with religion's core experiential elements.

Moreover, we should not be discouraged by the variety of religious experiences, as their diversity points not to their futility, but to the varying needs of humankind. This does not make all religions equal, but does make them responsive to diverse human need. We are reminded of his comparison with horses and their courses.

Nor does the diversity of religion make them immune to scientific inquiry. Rather, the world's great number of faiths only make scientific study of them more rewarding, and more difficult, as detachment cannot be the best way to understand a realm so dependent on incommunicable experience.

Rather, the scientific study of religions can sort out the errors of fact prevalent in many of the religions that came before and to make stronger claims to truth in the present. Being primarily about the personal, religion can never be anachronistic, but it may be occasionally corrected.

This correction does not destroy religion because religion is always primarily about feeling and only secondarily about thought. More crucially, religion is about a sense of unease, of wrongness, and its concomitant ineluctable salve; it is not about anything to do with unspooling the proper adjectives for God.

That individuals can perceive this cure is scientific support for the value of religious experience: "Let me then propose, as an hypothesis, that whatever it may be on its farther side, the "more" with which in religious experience we feel ourselves connected is on its hither side the subconscious continuation of our conscious life."

That is to say that James sees the religious correlation with the unconscious as one of its central claims to truth. Whatever else it does, religion correctly perceives our relation to a most elusive form of alterity, of otherness. Whether that is the Ultimate alterity, from a practical and scientific point of view, is quite beside the point.

The supernatural, posits James, is quite real enough for anyone. Its effects make it so.

This concludes this Cliff Notes series. The next discussion will concern, in some form, Thomas Merton's Book of Hours. Many thanks to Emory University for their helpful links, information, and analyses.